Research shows fitness testing is a regular feature of most secondary health and physical education programs in Australia. And while some students report they enjoy it, others say it is painful and embarrassing. But what educational purpose do these tests serve?
Monash’s Laura Alfrey examines the latest evidence.
As Health and Physical Education (HPE) teachers, we have a responsibility to provide our students with opportunities to achieve the standards laid out within the curriculum. Using the Victorian Curriculum for HPE (VCHPE) as an example, it states that students at Level 7-8 should:
Participate in physical activities that develop health-related and skill-related fitness components, and create and monitor personal fitness plans.
Extending this, in Level 9-10 they should have an opportunity to:
Design, implement and evaluate personalised plans for improving or maintaining their own and others’ physical activity and fitness levels.
The term ‘fitness testing’ is not used explicitly in either example, but terms such as ‘monitor’ and ‘evaluate’ suggest that some kind of measurement of ‘fitness plans’ and ‘fitness levels’ need to occur.
Research in Victoria and internationally suggests that most HPE teachers choose to teach ‘fitness education’ through fitness testing.
What does the evidence say about fitness testing?
The most common fitness tests include the ‘beep test’, ‘sit and reach test’ and the ‘Cooper run’.
Research shows that:
- Most Secondary HPE teachers carry out fitness testing at least once per year with each class/grade.
- Some children enjoy participating in fitness testing.
- Some children find fitness testing painful, embarrassing and shameful, and these feelings can persist into adulthood, to damaging effect.
- Children’s experiences of fitness testing are not always meaningful or educational.
- There is no evidence that fitness testing is successful in promoting healthy lifestyles, physical activity, or developing the required knowledge and skills for lifelong physical activity.
In addition, ‘school-based challenges’ and ‘body image’ feature in the top four issues of personal concern for young Australians.
If we know that fitness testing is a damaging experience for some students, why do we do it?
Research with 130 Victorian HPE teachers suggested there were multiple reasons why we teach through fitness testing.
It is not surprising that we carry out fitness testing on the assumption that it will motivate the students to develop their fitness and health. One teacher suggested:
It could make them more aware of their own health. I can’t see how it would really drive them to push harder unless it was something that they really wanted to achieve in their football club or something; they wanted to get a certain score on the ‘beep test’ ... it could be a really good motivation for that, but I don’t see that it is maybe as powerful as other people think.
We’ve always done it
For most teachers they taught through fitness testing because they'd always done it because it was a permanent feature of their school HPE curriculum. One teacher said:
I carry out fitness testing twice per year. I do the beep test, basketball throw, sit and reach, 1.6 km run, height, weight, shoulder stretch, sit ups. I do it because it is set out in our schools curriculum that students should do fitness testing at the beginning of term 1 and beginning of term 4.
As two teachers said:
Well it’s easy to administer in large groups, a history teacher could do it. Here’s a tape, line them up, measure a tape of 20 metres, it’s easy to do, it doesn’t cost much.
I think it’s really easy to implement, and it’s just kind of a slack way to take a class. It’s an easy class to take because you’ve got all the rules set out. I don’t think it’s great personally.
As part of these conversations with HPE teachers, one shared:
I think we rush the fitness test unit. We do all of the tests...then what? Students don’t analyse their data or compare it to norms. They don’t set goals or give strategies on how they can improve. Fitness testing would be better if teachers were more informed, and taught it more thoroughly.
Another teacher said:
I think that’s the biggest problem with us is that we try to get through it, we get through as much as we can... It’s pretty full on and fast. It’d be better to be able to reflect more and have the time to sit down and say ‘right look at your things, this is what it means’.
These quotations show that when given the time and space to reflect on fitness testing, we as HPE teachers have some great ideas about how we could ensure fitness testing is inclusive, safe, educational and meaningful for all students.
The future of fitness testing?
If we start by linking to some of the suggestions shared by teachers above, we can begin to envisage fitness testing that:
- Has a clear learning intention and educative purpose.
- Is relevant and meaningful to all students’ lives.
- Is not rushed, and students have the time to explore, critique and learn in, through and about fitness testing.
- Provides opportunities for students to reflect on the process and identify what they have learned, how they feel, how the experience is meaningful and useful to their day-to-day-lives etc.
In addition, it is also important to ask a series of critical questions about how the tests will be conducted.
- Will students carry out the testing as a group, in a circuit, at home/individually?
- Is the testing carried out in isolation or is it linked to other learning experiences throughout the term/year?
- Can students choose which tests they participate in?
- Do students have to participate in validated tests or can they develop their own?
- How will the data be collected? Who will collect it? For what purpose?
- Do you have a mechanism for knowing how the fitness testing process is making your students feel?
How does your school’s fitness testing align with the five key ideas of the Victorian Curriculum for HPE?
Focus on educative purposes
Is fitness testing part of a developmentally appropriate and explicit learning experience within HPE? Are students provided with learning opportunities to practise, create, apply and evaluate the knowledge, understanding and skills related to fitness testing?
Take a strengths-based approach
Is there an explicit focus on student strengths related to fitness testing, what are they good at? Does your fitness education curriculum recognise that students have varying levels of access to personal and community resources depending on a variety of contextual factors that will impact on their decisions and behaviours related to fitness?
Will your fitness education curriculum encourage ongoing participation across your students’ lifespan and in turn lead to positive health outcomes? Are fitness and physical performance explored from a range of perspectives, including scientific, social, cultural and historical? Does fitness education provide challenges and opportunities for students to enhance a range of personal and social skills and behaviours that contribute to health and wellbeing?
Develop health literacy
Does fitness education allow for students to research, apply, understand, and critically analyse information related to fitness (as a subcomponent of physical health)?
Include a critical inquiry approach
Does fitness education engage students in critical inquiry processes that assist students in researching, analysing, applying and appraising knowledge related to fitness? Do students have opportunities to critically analyse and critically evaluate contextual factors that influence decision-making, behaviours and actions, and explore inclusiveness, power inequalities, assumptions, diversity and social justice as they relate to fitness and health more broadly?
Changing your approach starts with asking questions
It takes time and consideration to answer these questions, examine the research and to consider if your fitness education curriculum needs to be realigned to be more inclusive, safe, educational and meaningful for all your students.
Change requires support from a range of sources including your colleagues and principal, carefully chosen professional development providers, and researchers such as myself (Laura Alfrey) who are passionate about supporting change in HPE.
If you have any questions, please feel welcome to make contact via Laura.Alfrey@monash.edu.
- Alfrey & Gard (2014) A crack where the light gets in: a study of Health and Physical Education teachers' perspectives on fitness testing as a context for learning about health, Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, vol. 5 iss. 1, pp. 3-18.
- Garret & Wrench (2008) Pleasure and pain: Experiences of fitness testing, Sage, vol. 14, iss. 3, pp. 325-346.
- Sykes & McPhail (2008) Unbearable Lessons: Contesting Fat Phobia in Physical Education, Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 25 iss. 1, pp. 66-98.
- Mercier, Phillips & Silverman (2016) High School Physical Education Teachers' Attitudes and use of Fitness Tests, University of North Carolina Press, The High School Journal, vol. 99, no. 2, pp. 179-190.
- Cale & Harris (2009) Fitness testing in physical education – a misdirected effort in promoting healthy lifestyles and physical activity?, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, vol 14, iss. 1, pp. 89-108.
- Carlisle et al. (2018) Youth Survey Report 2018, Mission Australia.